The Best Rep Range for Strength Training
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
For a majority of the training that I do with my athletes as well as myself I keep the reps between 1-6. This may seem like a very limited and unusually low rep range in which to perform a majority of one’s training, however, it’s anything but. In fact, when implemented properly and performed with textbook eccentric isometrics (read more about eccentric isometrics here), the 1-6 rep range provides all of the training stimuli one needs to optimize strength, hypertrophy, and performance. However, this requires a change in training mindset as well as a complete overhaul of one’s training approach. Here’s what I mean.
A majority of training protocols recommended by mainstream magazines as well as performance coaches relies on quantity rather than quality to produce the desired training stimulus. For instance, 3-5 sets ranging anywhere between 5-20 reps represents the most common recommended rep and set schemes. However, such recommendations often promote faulty movement mechanics and poor neuromuscular efficiency as the emphasis on accumulating a high volume of total reps facilitates the mindset of aiming for quantity over quality particularly when it comes to movement execution.
Unfortunately, this methodology has been passed on through the iron game lineage from coach to coach and trainer to trainer. As a result the standard for performing most movements involves garbage reps with very little attention given to the proper execution of each repetition, not to mention the goal of each repetition itself. In essence, the concept and overall perception of what a traditional strength training rep should entail has become so bastardized, flawed, and distorted in mainstream fitness that junk reps have become the norm while properly executed reps with optimal motor control have become the rare exception. This is something expert strength coaches Christian Thibaudeau, John Rusin, and Vince McConnell as well as world-renowned kinesiologist Stuart McGill, have also discussed over the years.
Most individuals approach their program with the end goal being the completion of their programmed sets and reps rather than the program being the means to the end. Instead of focusing on mindlessly completing a desired rep range, the goal should be to optimize each and every repetition of every set by producing the most potent training stimulus possible with maximal muscle recruitment on every single rep. In other words top chasing reps, instead chase muscle stimulation. This requires the lifter to use laser like focus and pay attention to every component of the movement (both internal and external factors). This includes controlling the eccentric phase of the exercise, pausing in the stretched position, smoothly but aggressively completing the concentric phase, then aggressively squeezing their targeted muscles in the fully contracted position. In other words, performing a properly executed eccentric isometric.
It also requires the lifter to pay attention to their form, body mechanics, and muscle mind connection on each and every repetition rather than being zoned out like a brain-dead zombie. Not only will this produce a level of training intensity that few iron game warriors have ever experienced, it will also produce an incredibly potent training stimulus as each repetition will be triggering functional strength and hypertrophy, not to mention improving body mechanics and neuromuscular efficiency. With this approach the optimal rep range will be much lower than what most individuals are accustomed to as each repetition is exponentially more intense both physically and mentally. In essence, higher reps sets would be impractical as it would be nearly impossible to attend to the same level of detail, focus, and intensity for more than a brief duration.
Unfortunately, lifters focus solely on the amount of reps and sets they complete. Instead they should focus on the amount of quality time under tension induced from each and every rep. When you incorporate garbage reps you’ll have to compensate with copious amounts of volume to produce any type of meaningful growth stimulus. It’s for this reason most programs emphasize higher rep sets as their approach involves the use of garbage reps rather than quality time under tension. With proper form and methodically executed reps, higher reps are unnecessary as even just a handful of properly executed repetitions will produce a worthwhile training stimulus. Simply put, focus on quality of reps rather than quantity of reps.
Real Life Scenarios
This is something I witness time and again with my pro athletes who train with me for the first time. These genetically gifted specimens are accustomed to going through just about every training routine and protocol you could imagine as they’ve been “training” for a better part of their lives. However, once I have them, lighten the load, slow the movement down, execute each repetition with textbook mechanics, and attend to various components of proprioceptive feedback, just a few sets of several repetitions exhausts them to the point they’re literally seeing stars.
Here’s an example of a few of my NFL athletes Prince Charles Iworah and CJ Okpalobi performing just 2 single leg goblet squats per leg.
Most individuals cannot comprehend how only 2 reps with a light load could produce an adequate training stimulus. However once they try it, their attitude towards training is forever changed as they come to understand the power of high quality reps. Read more about using eccentric isometric squats here.
The Time Under Tension (TUT) Component
Something else to keep in mind is the time under tension involved during properly executed repetitions in comparison to garbage reps. A proper rep using a methodically executed eccentric isometric protocol will take anywhere between 5-8 seconds to complete. In contrast, the typical repetition performed by most athletes including seasoned lifters is usually 1-3 seconds at best. With that said performing a textbook set of 3-5 dialed-in repetitions will take longer to complete than most traditional sets of 8-12 reps.
Additionally that time under tension for 3-5 properly executed reps will involve high quality time under tension as opposed to the spastic muscle contractions with excessive momentum that most lifters are accustomed to. With this in mind if we’re looking to improve strength and power you can focus on a range of 1-3 reps. If the goal is strength and hypertrophy you can move up to 3-6 reps. In other words, the 1-6 rep range provides nearly every form of training stimulus one needs from resistance training while simultaneously ingraining proper body mechanics rather than sloppy form and dysfunctional movement.
The Auto-Regulation Principle
The auto-regulation principle is also something I use quite frequently with my athletes when it comes to rep schemes. For instance I may provide a certain rep range as a guideline such as 3-4 reps for a particular set. However, I’ll often tell them to focus on getting as much out of every rep as possible. If the guideline was 4 reps but they reach 2 or 3 and simply begin to fatigue due to the high intensity of muscular contractions produced from 2-3 perfectly executed reps, then there’s no need to aim for the 4th rep unless they can complete it with the same intensity and focus.
Additionally if they think they’ll be able to use better form for a given load by aiming for 2-3 reps for that set rather than aiming for 4-5 reps, then 2-3 should be their goal. In other words, the objective should be to take each set one rep at a time, maximize the effectiveness of each rep, and continue on in that fashion until no more perfect reps can be performed in that manner. Simply put, never sacrifice form or the effectiveness of a repetition simply for the sake of performing more total repetitions. Failure to do so is ultimately what leads to ineffective garbage reps that wreak havoc on the joints while doing little if anything to stimulate an ample training response.
Another way to think of this is rather than focusing on a specific number of reps that must be completed, focus instead on inducing the strongest training stimulus from each and every repetition whether you reach 1,2, 3, or 6 reps. Keep in mind, just a few sets of several properly-executed eccentric isometric reps will do more to stimulate strength, hypertrophy and performance improvements than any number of high-volume garbage-rep sets.
What About Periodization and Training Cycles?
It’s also important to highlight that this training strategy of using 1-6 textbook reps doesn’t need to be periodized or used only in certain training cycles or program phases. Instead it can be used on a continuous basis to make up the majority of one’s training. In fact the whole notion and ideology behind periodization is based on the inevitable truth that most individuals perform garbage reps in their training while using aberrant form and dysfunctional movement mechanics. Therefor a variety of advanced periodization models and training cycles need to be strategically implemented to deal with such lousy movement execution. When proper mechanics are employed no such strategies are needed and in most cases they are actually counterproductive. Read more about my periodization approach here.
Exceptions To The Rule
Lastly it’s important to point out that while a majority of my training and that of my athletes involves the 1-6 rep range I still do periodically use higher reps primarily during finishing sets of isolation type exercises such as bicep curls, leg extensions, and lateral raises. However the form and technique involved is similar to that previously described for the 1-6 reps. In other words even though reps increase, form, intensity, and attention to detail never degrades.
What About The Number of Sets?
In terms of the number of sets, I typically use 2-4 sets as this maximizes the training response without producing excessive fatigue or recovery issues. For instance, for most individuals, the first set of an exercise (once they’ve adequately warmed up and progressed with lighter loads) is often a “feeler set” where they’re finding their neuromuscular groove. It’s typically not until their 2nd and 3rd and sometimes even 4th sets that they’re really locked in and triggering the desired training response. However, I’ve found that typically beyond 4 total sets of a particular exercise, the individual has already reached maximal stimulation and is only producing unnecessary levels of fatigue which will hamper recovery.
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